The Delta COVID-19 variant: Should we be concerned?
Jamaica has hit the grim milestone of over 1,000 COVID-19-related deaths and sadly, we are not out of the woods of the pandemic as yet, given the discovery of the highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant. The Delta variant was first discovered in India in December 2020 and has since been detected in over 85 countries.
The World Health Organization has sounded an alarm that the Delta variant is significantly more contagious than the other coronavirus variants that wreaked havoc across the globe in 2020. Researchers have also reported that it is up to 60 per cent more transmissible than the original COVID-19 strain. Moreover, the world has witnessed the catastrophic impact of the Delta variant which caused the deadly second wave of COVID-19 infections in India and third wave in the United Kingdom. The Delta COVID-19 variant has also taken its toll on the United States, where it was recently declared a variant of concern due to COVID-19 surges in hospitalisations and deaths.
The unvaccinated populations and countries where COVID-19 restrictions have been eased are prime targets for the new Delta variant. Jamaica should therefore brace for this contagious strain as the Government has recently relaxed COVID-19 restriction measures and only 2.6 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated. The glaring shortage of vaccine in Jamaica has also made us more vulnerable to this dangerous and deadly COVID-19 variant.
HOW DOES THE CORONAVIRUS CHANGE TO A NEW VARIANT?
Once you become infected, the virus genetic material (RNA) enters your cells and makes copies of itself (replicates) which move on to infect more cells. During the copying process, mistakes may occur which cause changes to the virus (mutation). These mutations may eventually accumulate and become a part of the virus normal genetic material. This may confer new properties to the virus such as allowing the virus to infect cells more easily and/or increasing the severity of infections. Mutation causes the Delta variant to latch on to cells more easily, which confers the property of increased infectivity and severity. Increased transmission of this virus will provide even more opportunities for replication and mutations; therefore, over time more dangerous and lethal variants may evolve.
In fact, health officials have recently detected the Delta Plus variant that has emerged from the Delta variant but there is little information on its severity and transmissibility.
EFFICACY OF VACCINE AGAINST THE DELTA VARIANT
Vaccination is considered the most effective measure against new strains of the coronavirus, as COVID-19 vaccines stimulate the immune system to produce a wide range of antibodies. Research has shown that the unvaccinated are twice as likely to experience serious illness and hospitalisation if infected with the new Delta variant compared to other COVID-19 variants. Some studies have reported that the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines offered lower protection against the Delta variant than other strains two weeks after the second dose was given. It has also been found that the Delta variant may be linked to increased risk of hospitalisations and may be more resistant to vaccines, specifically after one dose. Therefore, people that are vaccinated should not let their guard down as the Delta variant is also increasing in highly vaccinated countries. More harmful strains may also evolve which may evade vaccines.
Since over 90 per cent of the Jamaican population has still not been vaccinated, there is a call for caution to practise effective safety measures to keep infection rates down. Considering the spur of outbreaks caused by this highly contagious Delta variant, Jamaicans are urged to take the vaccine as soon as it becomes available. Those that are two years and older should wear a mask in public spaces and you should stay at least six feet apart (about 2 arms’ length) from people that do not live with you. The mask should cover your nose and mouth and secured under your chin. It is important to stay in well-ventilated spaces and wash or sanitise your hands before you put on and after you take off your mask. Good hand hygiene should be practised, and crowds should be avoided. Let us do our part to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Melisa Anderson Cross is a clinical chemistry lecturer in the College of Health Sciences at the University of Technology, Jamaica.